Carry on

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows where …

—”He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” B. Scott/B. Russell

Dear Son,

I think this may be my favorite picture of you. For several reasons. I like to see you in such a peaceful setting, walking that country path beside lush green fields, under the blue summer sky. You were walking with a friend, so you weren’t alone. You told me that her puppy followed youI still can’t believe that’s just a puppy; he’s massive!and he got tired, so you picked him up and carried him the rest of the way.

That is why I love the photo so much. It captures the essence of who you are.

Quietly bearing your burdens, no matter how heavy. There have been many in these past few years. Ever how burdened you were, ever how twisted and dark the path became, you kept on walking.

No one knows better than I what a long, long road it’s been, from the day you started college to now. Graduation being canceled, just when the end is in sight, feels like a coup de grâce.

It all started off on such a high note, didn’t it? Getting that phone call two weeks after you finished high school, a church looking for a music director. Your childhood dream. I still have your kindergarten “All About Me” book with the prompt ‘When I grow up, I want to be’ … where you drew yourself as a choir director in crayon. You attained it at seventeen, before your formal training even began.

That summer was glorious and brief.

That fall you started college and almost instantly the shadows came.

Your father‘s diagnosis of ocular melanoma, the loss of his eye, the weeks waiting for pathology to reveal no cancer cells had spread. Despite your new job and your courseload, you stepped up to help him readjust.

On the heels of his healing came Ma-Ma’s stroke, the beginning of her slow decline over the rest of that year. She knew how much you loved her. She treasured every minute with you; she savored every long phone call you made from the time you were little. She couldn’t keep from crying whenever you played the piano and sangremember how she organized for you to come play at her nursing home, near the last? I will never forget her wet, shining face. She was inordinately proud of you. She loved you fiercely.

How grateful I am that you and your dad were there, holding her hands, when she died.

And so you bore her loss on top of an unexpected one.

I know you’re marking the date. Three years ago today, the accident that took your friend. Your little childhood playmate who sang with you in preschool choir, your high school band mate, the organizer of the Sunday-nights-at-Bojangles gatherings. As I write, I hear her pure, high voice echoing in the church to your harmony and piano accompaniment. Her going left all of us reeling—a swift, severe, deep cut to the heart, a knotty scar we’ll bear forever. And yet you play on. You still sing. You stand by her family in their remembrances, your presence the only comfort that’s in your power to give. She would be graduating, too, this spring … but no one is graduating this spring …

It’s one of the hardest things in life, losing people, and not only to death. People will come and go because they choose to, no matter how much we wish they’d stay. You endured this, too, with uncommon grace, never lashing out, just walking on with your invisible pain. I knew it was there. I could feel the weight of it.

Seems we were due a respite, and if there was one, it was those few weeks of vacation last summer before your dad’s heart attack. You and I had just come home from walking when the officer arrived in the driveway to say your dad’s truck had run off the road and hit a tree, it might have been a medical event, maybe a seizure, no, he wasn’t sure what condition your father was in, EMS was working on him when he left, and did we have a way to get to the hospital? With your big brother too distraught to drive, you did it. Calmly, carefully, you drove us to the emergency room where the nurse met us at the door. You were beside me when she ushered us to the little room where the doctor met us to say your father had been resuscitated and was being prepped for heart surgery.

You were there with me that first night of sleeping on the waiting room chairs, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. You were there with me throughout that long week of his hospitalization, until your dad came home, battered, bruised, trying to recover his memory. You got his prescriptions so that I wouldn’t have to leave him … and when I took him back to the ER with chest pains a couple of weeks later, you met us there. Another hospital stay. Another heart surgery. Two more weeks of sleeping in the hospital. Do you remember the surreality of it all? How we felt like it would never end, like we were caught in the web of the wrong story, a movie with a terrible plot twist we didn’t see coming? How could this be?

Somehow you managed to keep your studies up, only leaving for your classes and your church services, making the music and leading the worship for others.

So here we are, at last. Your dad, recovered and restored … able to drive me back and forth to work with my broken foot … until this tiny pathogen bent on world domination closed the schools. Here you are, completing your final weeks of college online, being denied the walk to receive the reward of all your labors … it is unthinkable.

I think about the whole of your young adult life. How your road has been so long, with many a winding turn, through many a dark shadow. I watched how you went around, through, or over every obstacle on this arduous journey. You’ve endured what might have caused others to quit college, others who might have actually enjoyed their studies; I know you never loved the “game” of school and that for you it’s been a test of endurance, in itself. But the end is in sight—despite a pandemic. A plague. Who’d have ever believed, in our time …

You have come this far, bearing every heavy load. You’ve carried on. Often you, the baby of the family, carried the rest of us. You’ve fought internal battles for your own wellness more than anyone else knows; in this spiritual war, you’ve earned a Medal of Honor for exceptional valor. I know it and God knows it, Son. I stand in awe of your heart, full of love and mercy, so self-sacrificial, so willing to lighten others’ burdens as your own grew heavier. Like carrying a giant puppy during a long walk on a hot summer’s day, because it got tired.

That is why I love this picture. It is your story.

There are no words for how much I love you.

Keep walking, Son. Carry on. You are strong.

I am stronger because of you. Soon my foot will be well enough to walk with you again.

When we come through this present ominous shadow, college will be over, we’ll find ourselves in a whole new chapter in our lives, and we’ll celebrate all of it. Just a little farther alongI know that in your quiet way, you’ve already made your peace with it. I can almost hear you singing:

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right
...

All my love, my always-little darling,

Your forever proud, grateful Mom

Child’s play

My granddaughter, age four, has a touch of cold. She told her dad (my son): “I think I have a little bit of coronavirus.” Yesterday she told the family that that her new Barbie bakery had to close down because “people in her town got coronavirus.”

Her understanding of such stark realities pierces my heart. Her comments also take me back to something I learned in my final high school English class, where I sat horror-struck, riveted, as my teacher painted a verbal image of London in the bubonic plague (which also originated in China):

This was the second and worst wave … people were superstitious about a catastrophic event occuring in 1666, with the Biblical symbolism of three sixes together, but the plague struck the year before, 1665 … spread by fleas on black rats … First you must understand the condition of London at the time. The characteristic fog was mingled with black smoke from factories and the coal-fires of a terribly overcrowded city. There was no sanitation; people dumped their waste from windows—that’s where the phrase “Gardy-loo!” originated, from the French “garde a l’eau!”—”watch out for the water!” It’s what people shouted to warn those walking on the street below, so they could jump out of the way when the buckets and chamber pots were dumped. Raw sewage ran in the streets … human and animal … just imagine what was on people’s shoes, on the hems of ladies’ long dresses … and during the plague, bodies also lay in the streets, where people fell dead… this sparked the children to invent a new game: Ring-Around-the-Rosie …

—What?

Ring-Around-the Rosie? It’s a silly, giddy game. How many times had I played it as a child, with neighborhood kids or schoolmates, trying to pull each other around the circle of our joined hands faster and faster, until we deliberately made ourselves fall?

“Ring-Around-the-Rosie” was originally “Ring a ring of roses,” funeral wreaths for the dead. “Pocket full of posie” was a reference to the nosegays people carried when they had to walk in the streets—flowers held to the nose to counteract the stench, or a handkerchief doused with cologne, if they were wealthy enough to have it. “Ashes, ashes”—at the time, it was “rashes, rashes,” indicating the discoloration of the skin from bursting lymph nodes, or “buboes,” hence the name “bubonic plague.” And “we all fall down” … that’s self-explanatory. It’s what the children saw…

That’s an indelible image: Children joining hands in the streets, chanting, whirling around faster and faster— laughing—against that ghastly backdrop. It’s how they interpreted and internalized events, how they coped with their world—through play.

The game remains with us centuries afterward. In our time, it’s indicative of the carefree joy of childhood; the darkness is long forgotten.

That’s what play does: defeats the demons, diminishes fear, turns the dark into light. It’s the way children communicate their learning about the world. It’s release, acceptance, solace, safety. It’s the bright, creationary force in a child’s domain: play is within the child’s control when nothing else is.

Its value, inestimable.

Barbie’s bakery will re-open, I am sure, for our businesses will. Our times are grim at present, but we know what causes disease to spread. We understand (most of us, let’s hope) that for now we have to keep our physical distance, for our greater good. We know the value of hygiene. We shall have to join hands—figuratively— in many different ways; we shall be pulled, and strained, but as long as we don’t succumb to panic, and if we submit to wisdom, we shall not fall.

And our children?

They’ll keep on playing.

And watching.

“We should respect with humility the bright holiness of childhood.”

-Janusz Korczak

Photo: “Circle of Peace” bronze sculpture by Gary Lee Price (children playing Ring-Around-the-Rosie). Blake Bolinger. CC BY.